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Unknown Girl and Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom Essay

Compare and contrast the presentation of the poets’ attitudes to progress in Unknown Girl and Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom. People have been thinking about what ‘progress’ means for hundreds of years. We normally associate it with positive impacts and things changing for the better, which the majority of the time is correct. Edward E Cummings once said ‘Nothing recedes like progress.’ and in the poems ‘Unknown Girl’ and ‘Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom’ the poets agree with this statement. Alvi and Douglas present a negative view to the force of progress, we begin to question our understanding of progress, the benefits we gain from it and the danger that we lose what is most important when blindlessly pursuing it. Both poets share an experience of different cultures to our own and write about cultures similar to the ones they grew up in. ‘Unknown Girl’ is an autobiographical poem about Alvi having a traditional henna tattoo in an Indian Bazaar, (‘in the evening bazaar/ studded with neon/ an unknown girl/ is hennaing my hand.’)

Moniza Alvi, was born in Pakistan, a similar culture to India, where ‘Unknown Girl’ is set, the poem describes her going back to her native country, to rediscover and reconnect with her heritage, to find out who she truly is. However throughout the poem we discover the real India has been covered by a curtain (‘canopy’) of Western influences and because of that, Alvi struggles to find the genuine India. Like Alvi, Marcia Douglas, has an understanding of Eastern and Western cultures; she was born in the United Kingdom, but emigrated to rural Jamaica when she was a young child, to a village similar to the place where ‘Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom’ is set. Douglas describes Mr Samuel as being the first person to get electricity in Cocoa Bottom and everyone’s excitement at this event. Cocoa Bottom is promised an epiphany; they will finally see the light – a literal and spiritual enlightenment.

The event itself is made to feel like a public event, like a royal is visiting the community, it is built up using language techniques such as reinforcement of words, ‘Swaying’ intensifying the motion of the trees, and after a large build up, the lights go on but everyone is disappointed and return home. You could say that the two poets use their own experience of having a ‘foot in two cultures’ as an advantage here, as they both have an understanding of Eastern culture and the Western perspective and it is clear that they both come to a similar conclusion. The message in ‘Unknown Girl’ is shown through the Unknown Girl herself; she is a vehicle by which Alvi communicates her experience of re-connection with her heritage. Alvi uses her experience to tell us something more significant. Progress is a train which has already started and isn’t going to stop (‘like people who cling / to the sides of a train.’). India has traded its personalised history of crafts and skills such as hennaing for the western fakery (‘neon’, ‘Dummies in shop-fronts’ and ‘Miss India 1993’)

The message in ‘Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom’ is similar to Unknown Girl. Douglas shows that even with the drama and excitement of Cocoa Bottom receiving electricity for the first time, the end result is disappointment, similar to ‘Unknown Girl’. Where Alvi is extremely disappointed with the India she sees due to the western influences. The technological benefit of artificial light has no lasting impact on Cocoa Bottom’s community (‘children of Cocoa Bottom / had lit their lamps for the dark journey home’). Similar to biblical stories, this poem has a meaning and a moral. The form of both poems reflects the poets’ attitude to progress. Unknown Girl is one stanza long, with small and short line lengths. Alvi may have done this to make the poem look like one long line of henna but on a deeper level it relates to the purpose. Alvi shows through the way the poem looks, that progress is a continuous force that has no breaks, linking the simile on lines 32-35 about people clinging to the side of a train. Progress can be imagined as a train without breaks moving across a country, once you are on it you can’t get off.

Alvi shows progress, through form, as a destructible force which is unstoppable and inevitable. ‘Unknown Girl’ has a pacey start, with a train like rhythm in the first four lines (syllables: 6, 5, 4, 6), but this rhythm starts to break down. Alvi ‘loses’ the rhythm in the same way in which we are losing sight of the real India. When she describes something what she or the reader expects to see, the rhythm is controlled and regular. Whereas, when she looks around and sees the untraditional items in the bazaar, like neon lights, dummies and perms, the rhythm doesn’t fit properly in contrast to the previously controlled lines. Alvi uses the technique of repetition to create a conscious pattern in the lines 1-4, 10-14 and 28-31. For example: ‘In the evening bazaar/ for a few rupees/ an unknown girl/ is hennaing my hand.’ The first, third and fourth line is always repeated but the second changes as the poet begins to describe further than herself and the bazaar she sits in. Not only does this pattern add pace and rhythm to the poem it also draws attentions to particular lines that are of importance to the reader, in the lines 1-4, the line that changes is ‘studded with neon’.

This description gives the image of neon being forced upon the Indian bazaar; neon and India have been forced together by ripping through a fabric which symbolises India, studded was a trend associated with the 1970’s, but feels out of trend before this poem was written in 1993. Alvi is trying to show that the progress of India has led to it becoming a ‘tacky’ unfashionable country, which is ironically behind the times. The second time she uses this pattern the third line is describing how the girl is doing such artistry ‘for a few rupees’. Is western influence devaluing real artistry with its mass produced objects? The third and final time Alvi repeats this four line pattern, the second line is ‘very deftly’. The reader begins to feel Alvi’s focus is back on the Unknown Girl and is really beginning appreciating the skill she has. ‘Unknown Girl’ has no rhyme: rhyme shows control, but Alvi wants to prove her belief that progress is a destructive force spiralling out of control, leaving a country with no control and destroying its artistic heritage.

Similar to ‘Unknown Girl’, ‘Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom’ has no rhyme, but here it serves a different purpose. Lack of rhyme shows a lack of control reflecting the way of life in Cocoa Bottom, the community doesn’t operate under any force of progress and has freedom from any restrictions; however the arrival of electricity is the birth of progress into this community. Another feature of this poem is the relaxed control over line/stanza lengths and rhythm. ‘Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom’ is three stanzas long with a variety of different line lengths; the laid back rhythm of this poem follows the rhythm of their lives not the Western society’s rhythm. It is very clear when reading ‘Unknown Girl’ before ‘Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom’, the progress train that has already arrived and left a trail of destruction through India, is fortunately yet to reach Cocoa Bottom but electricity could be the train’s precursor and the train is very near. Unlike Alvi, who uses repetition as an organisational device, Douglas uses it for a different effect.

It is used for reinforcement, to close something down or to build anticipation; it has a cumulative effect on the poem (‘Swaying swaying’ ‘Swelling and swelling’) Although ‘Unknown Girl’, is only one stanza long, it is possible for it to be broken down into different sections. The first section gives us context to juxtapose the old and new India; it is an introduction to key themes and ideas, to what is happening and who is involved. The second section is entirely focussed on the girl and the henna tattoo. She uses one dominant event, an aspect of India culture, to symbolise the broader changes happening in India and how the traditional culture is being lost. Throughout the structure we are constantly being bought back to this simple idea of a tattoo, something so simple yet as beautiful; she describes the henna to be ‘firm peacock lines’, the peacock the national bird of India which represents its artistic tradition and history.

At first Alvi sees the henna as only something pretty, something edible and non-permanent, she refers to it being iced onto her hand (‘She is icing my hand’). But as the poem develops her understanding of the importance of this henna grows alongside it. The closer she looks at the tattoo the more she appreciates the artistry and what it symbolises. Alvi begins by talking about the ‘brown lines’, a contrast that at the end of the poem she refers to these lines as veins, on her hand but is constantly looking around the bazaar, only when she looks up, and doesn’t see the India that is on her hand, she realises what the rest has done because the things she is seeing in the bazaar are far too familiar to her, too much like the western world she has come from. The West has surged into her country like a train, destroying all that is personal and traditional.

Like ‘Unknown Girl’, ‘Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom’ is in chronological order; it opens with the word ‘then’, a conjunctive adverb, giving us the sense that events are already in motion, keeping the reader feeling like they are in with the action itself as its happening. Stanza one is the longest paragraph, building tension and anticipation through the children, animals and nature. The children being young but with the capacity to think are easily effected, have ‘camped out’ for a period of several hours for this event. But the fact animals and nature have stopped (‘fireflies waited’, ‘sea held its breath’) for this ‘glorious’ event of the lights being turned on shows the importance they feel about this event, something so powerful as the evening stopping for this event shows respect as it wishes not to disturb the event.

Personifying the evening makes the event feel even more remarkable and memorable. With stanza one being the longest stanza, we are given the impression that the build up to the lights being turned on is even bigger than the actual event itself. The event unlike the anticipation is momentary. Stanza two is when the actual event itself happens, there is a whole stanza dedicated to the big build up for only two lines (lines 18 and 25). By this point the whole world has stopped to bear witness to what ends to be a disappointing occasion, the time they have invested was wasted. The final stanza being the shortest is where everyone relights their oil lamps returns home – ‘children of Cocoa Bottom / had lit their lamps for the dark journey home’, there is no lasting impact and bathos is created. A literacy device used dominantly by both poets is symbolism. The symbol linking the two is light. Alvi uses the symbol of light in the form of ‘neon lights’.

Neon is one of many symbols and representations of progress in ‘Unknown Girl’. It is a light that isn’t practical or functional, as it gives off very little light; it is only used for a decorative item. Does Alvi want us to see that India is becoming fake and decorative country, rather than well-functioning? The light is blinding us from seeing the real India. Ironically the West’s neon light is too bright for us to see the real India. A clear link between ‘Unknown Girl’ and ‘Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom’ is how the light in both poems has been made by the poets to be insignificant. It provides no benefit, just like progress has on the areas it impacts. Unlike ‘Unknown Girl’, light is the dominant symbol of ‘Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom’, Douglas personifies light; making references to it frequently throughout the first stanza, ‘lamps filled with oil/waiting for sunset.’ ‘Lanterns off’, this emphasises that as a community they already have all the light they need, but ironically they turn their ‘lanterns off’ to watch the fake light. They have to make their world dark to see the fake light, Douglas is showing that they are losing sight of what they already have, trading the beautiful ‘yellow’ and ‘orange’ sunset for an unnatural source of unnecessary light.

The first symbol that Alvi uses in ‘Unknown Girl’ is ‘a peacock spreads its lines’. The peacock being the national bird of India is clear evidence of Alvi trying to reconnect with her heritage that she is so desperate to ‘cling’ on to and she describes herself ‘clinging to these firm peacock lines’. Ironically, the henna tattoo isn’t permanent as she will eventually ‘scrape of the brown lines’ and her connection with India will be lost. What is left of the tattoo is a ‘snail trail’ a faint line of brown that will eventually fade just like her connection with the traditional India. In line 42 she describes the final henna image as an ‘amber bird’, amber represents the past because of the way it is made over thousands of years. The slow process of making amber is the antithesis of what Alvi shows progress to be. The unknown girl herself is symbol which Moniza uses as a vehicle to move the poem along; she is used by the poet to provide a bridge between her ancestry and present day life, the Unknown girl becomes a symbol of hope, a fleeting connection with herself and the India she expected to find.

Almost as important as the unknown girl is the henna. The tattoo of henna symbolises the connection, it is artistically decorative and fits in with the poems sematic field. Alvi describes ‘dummies’ that ‘tilt and stare’. Do they tilt and stare because such artistry is alien to them as they ‘come from’ a western world of mass produced products or because they are amazed at such talent and skills? The dummies are meant to seem anachronistic in their setting of the ancient bazaar giving us the impression they are false and don’t belong in that bazaar or in India, similar to the feeling towards progress. Alvi uses the simile ‘like people who cling to the side of a train’ to portray an archetypal image of classic Bollywood films. The idea of a train being so overcrowded you have to cling to the sides shows nothing is clear; things are moving too fast, Alvi is putting us on the ‘train of progress’ and all we can do is hold on. What Alvi is trying to say is what Joyce Grenfell once said; ‘Progress everywhere today does seem to come so very heavily disguised as Chaos’.

Materials is a common theme running through ‘Unknown Girl’, the material symbolises the West, its influences and the dominance of commercialism. She describes how it ‘canopies’ her, literally saying all she can see is too familiar, as she recognises it from the west, where she comes from. In ‘Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom’, Douglas uses the children to symbolise the naive state of Cocoa Bottom and its innocence. They don’t understand the significance of the events they are ‘camping out for’; they are excited but not fully aware for the consequences embracing it. The older generation of Cocoa Bottom is symbolised by ‘Grannie Patterson’, she is described to peep through a crack in her porch door. The verb ‘peeped’ suggests a combination of inquisitiveness and caution, Douglas never tells us why she stays behind her door though. Does she fear of what is to come of this event? Similar to the Unknown Girl, Mr Samuel is a vehicle in the poem; he drives the poem onwards with his new technology that people appear to want to worship.

The electricity he has ‘bought’ to the village belongs to him, he owns the power. He is elevated by Douglas to become a God to the village (possible reference to colonialism that existed), ‘a silhouette against the yellow shimmer behind him-’. This fits in with the religious semantic filed of the poem, when he turns the light on it is if he has performed a miracle such as Jesus, the ‘son of God’ once did. This sematic field is strengthened by the adjectives used for the actions of ‘bowed heads’ continuing the theme of worship, Douglas moves on to tell us the ‘grass bent forward’, she gives the impression that the children and grass worship this man who has bought electricity to a village only for his own personal use. By line 9, the advent of electricity is described as ‘the cable line was drawn like a pencil line across the sun’; Douglas could be telling us two things, the arrival of progress is in the form of electricity which can be erased before it is drawn with a pen line or, that is it a sketch of what is to come. The cable could be interpreted as a symbol of progress encroaching onto their land (‘across the sun’) – trying to supersede it or totally cross out an almighty natural force. Once the light has been turned on in stanza two, the reaction of the ‘crowd’ is an intake of breath in wonder and marvel.

Their ‘swaying, swaying’ gives the image of a hypnotic motion in a transcendent religious state, they are all transfixed by this sight of electricity that thy have never seen before. By the end of the second stanza, the reader can tell the poet is critical of this worship of man-made phenomena. The implicit criticism is clear when Douglas uses a religious hyperbole in the second stanza and the dramatic build-up to a tiny event is given in the first stanza. However it is most clear with her use of bathos in the third and final stanza, achieved through the use of a comparatively brief stanza (6 lines) and the lack if lasting impact. Enjambment straddles the end of verse 2 and 3 with the use of ‘-‘, which holds the moment just a fraction longer as we switch from verse to verse. We almost hear the ‘gasp’ exhaled as their excitement turns to disappointment. After the build-up even the children had ‘already’ lit their lamps and were ready for the ‘dark journey home’.

They had wasted their time in something that was a disappointment. Only a ‘few warm rocks’ heard anything and they are ‘hidden’. Douglas uses rocks as they have been here since the creation of the earth. They gave an unthinkable amount of time waiting for this event and were inevitably disappointed. The disappointment of something that has been personified links to the ‘furious streets’ in ‘Unknown Girl’. Alvi tells us that there are ‘Furious streets’. She personifies the streets, and by doing this she transfers the feeling of the people onto their city to show how progress is affecting everyone. Alvi learns she must ‘lean across a country with hands outstretched’ to reconnect with the old India, this illustrates the huge task that must be made to bridge the gap from old to new. Will she ever see the ‘old’ India again? Unknown Girl is a standard example of a culture lost striving for progress. Does Moniza Alvi use ‘Unknown Girl’ to prophesise and warn of what Cocoa Bottom is about to become?

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